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Critics paint crackdown on sex offenders as too broad

ATLANTA - Legislation toughening sanctions against violent sexual predators in Georgia could catch teenagers guilty of "youthful indiscretion'' and adults guilty of nonviolent sexual misbehavior in the same net, several speakers warned Wednesday during a hearing on the bill.

Vowing to give Georgia the nation's strongest law against sex crimes involving children, House Republican leaders have introduced a bill lengthening prison sentences for convicted sex offenders when the victim is under 14 years of age.

The measure also would impose mandatory minimum sentences for offenders found guilty of certain "aggravated'' sex crimes.

But the law, as written, would impose those stiff sentences not only on people who violently attack children, but on those who commit such nonviolent acts as exposing themselves or even urinating on the side of a road, said attorney Doug Peters, former president of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

"We understand the pulse of the feelings here,'' he told members of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, which has jurisdiction over criminal law. "What we're asking for is that what is enacted addresses the most serious cases.''

Other speakers complained the legislation would allow teenage boys caught in consensual sexual relationships with their girlfriends to be prosecuted as sex criminals, imprisoned and forced to register as sex offenders when they get out.

"Are we to label a teenager for life because of a youthful consensual indiscretion?'' asked Kim Muns, a housewife.

But other speakers supported the bill, some even suggesting that it doesn't go far enough.

John Dearie, chairman of the Voice of the Faithful, an Atlanta-based Catholic organization, recommended including a provision eliminating Georgia's statute of limitations for prosecuting sexual abuse of children.

David Rush, a retired Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent who oversees Columbia County's sex-offender registry, suggested the stricter monitoring requirements contained in the measure be amended to impose a registration fee on offenders to help pay for the program.

Committee members conceded that the bill may need to be reworked to address the potential for unintended consequences brought up by Wednesday's speakers.

"It does cast a very broad net,'' said Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth.

Peters suggested that Georgia defense lawyers form a subcommittee with prosecutors to come up with recommendations for the panel.

Rep. David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, the committee's chairman, said he would welcome input from the various groups interested in the issue but would leave it up to them to decide whether to work together on it.

Meanwhile, the committee also heard a brief presentation on a second bill aimed at child-sex offenders.

The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Tim Bearden, R-Villa Rica, would impose life sentences without the possibility of parole on defendants convicted of rape or aggravated sodomy when the victim is 12 years old or younger.

"We don't believe a child-sexual predator who goes after young kids should ever get a second chance,'' said Bearden.